Monsoons bring a shower of problems for Chennai’s slum residents

Slum residents in Kotturpuram, Saidapet and Teynampet face the same problems every year

Godhashri Srinivasan

  Chennai, Mar. 9: The first thing that M. Revathi did last year when water started trickling into her Saidapet home, was pack a bag of clothes, documents and food for her family. This has been her response since the 2015 floods.

Memories of the 2015 floods—when heavy rains caused the Adyar river to flood, killing more than 300 people—continue to haunt Revathi. “It’s hard for me to talk about it,” she said. Now, every time it rains, she has made a drill out of packing a bag with essential supplies. She did it even last year, when rainwater filled the street almost to the calf. 

Seven years on, water stagnation and flooding is still a recurring problem every monsoon season. The 2016-17 District Statistical Handbook marks Chennai’s total slum population at over 8 lakh people. Saidapet, one of the areas that saw severe flooding, has 14 slums with 6,212 tenements, according to a Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board document. In 2021, the amount of rainfall was more than that in 2015. As on December 30 last year, 2,174 mm was recorded in Chennai as against the 2,095 mm in 2015. 

Cyan highlights show 2015 inundation in Teynampet, Kotturpuram and Saidapet. Dark blue areas show water bodies and pink area show surrounding low-lying areas like Revathi’s house. Source: National Remote Sensing Centre, ISRO

      Flooding has become a yearly occurrence. For R. Nalini in an Anna Nagar slum, that means wading through water (sometimes calf-level). “[During the rainy season] we always have to walk through water, even to get a packet of milk,” she said.    

   Every rainy season gives her anxiety. She worries if they’ll have to move again, if they would get a place to stay, and if they would lose their things. In an area where most men are daily wage labourers working in construction and women are domestic helps, moving from the area that gives them their jobs isn’t easy. 

  K. Kamali, a Teynampet resident, too, has developed a routine – keep children safe on a cot off the floor, pack clothes, and move groceries to higher shelves. Then, she and her husband stayed awake through the night, fanning their sleeping children. This is what she did last year.

  Age-old concerns 

  Stagnant water is not new to these residents, not after the extent of flooding in 2015. It is just an inconvenience to be dealt with.

   K. Sundar, a Kotturpuram resident in a TNSCB colony said that every time it rains, water sometimes collects as high as the knees for over a couple hours. The water would come up to the entrance of the houses. Then, the residents would call corporation officials to pump it out. This is the routine every time it rains.   

    Like water stagnation, blocked stormwater drains is a recurring problem.

  Bhavani, a resident of SM Nagar in Teynampet, has been complaining about the condition of her TNSCB apartment’s drainage pipes for over one year now. “We’ve seen every corporation official, even MLAs, but nothing has been done. I try to fix it as much as I can,” she said. SM Nagar has over 1,000 people living in slums, according to the Chennai City Disaster Management Perspective Plan, 2021. 

  Broken pipes, beside letting sewage pool at the bottom, also dampens the walls and weakens the building. Water stagnating on the roof of the building seeps into the ceilings, right from the fourth floor house to the first. Paint flakes hang from the ceiling in patches. 

  “My building will be the first one to fall,” Bhavani said, pointing to the peeling paint and moss on the walls. In some houses, structures have fallen off during the rains, like the window shade outside the window in Alagu’s house. A portion of the bathroom ceiling, too, fell.

Alagu shows around her house after the rains damaged parts of the bathroom and window.

   Layers and layers of garbage behind houses, too, leads to water stagnation after rains. Once, Sarasu Ravi found a dead dog in the pile. The residents had to remove it themselves when corporation officials did not respond. 

   Besides rainwater on the streets, water came up from the floors of houses. “It bubbles up from the floors like a spring,” Bhavani said. Water coming up from toilets enters homes and mixes with sewage from overflowing stormwater drains. It took two weeks for Kamali to clean her house and bring it back to normal.

   These infrastructural problems have continued in slum communities for several years. Corporation officials have to be paid to clear garbage from the streets, the government does not maintain tenements or stormwater drains and the people continue to dread the monsoon season every year. 

   “We only have to talk to the Chief Minister now,” Sarasu joked.

   This is not what T. Murugesan, a Tamil Nadu Urban Habitat Development Board official, says. Murugesan is an executive engineer who is responsible for tenements in the Marina area near the beach. Maintenance and grievance redressal is a part of his duties, along with construction of new tenements. He receives 10 to 15 complaints about blockage of pipes every day. “We never ignore calls in our department,” he says. “I always call back even if I miss a call.” He gives it a maximum of 10 days before the complaint is “closed.”

  Tenements are littered with garbage because the people don’t want to use dustbins, he said. However, the garbage accumulated behind houses is a result of the floods, according to Bhavani.

  He also points to a lack of funds for building necessary amenities. “We wanted to build a community hall, but there wasn’t space. We didn’t have the funds to build a public health centre,” he said.